Chris Cox

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With the Delta variant raging across the state and school systems in every direction hurriedly moving to mask mandates for students before school begins, the Haywood County Board of Education called an emergency meeting on Friday afternoon … to do nothing. Unless creating the illusion of having done something counts. 

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There is the dream my wife has every so often that haunts her. She’s on vacation and it’s the last day, time to pack up and go back home, and she realizes with this profoundly sick, panicky feeling that she hasn’t been to the beach even once and now it’s too late. 

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Five chickens appeared one bright summer morning in our driveway. I was still half asleep, stumbling through my morning routine of grinding and brewing the coffee, and then stepping out onto the front porch to water the fuchsias in matching hanging baskets on either side of the front steps. 

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There are three dogs in this bed: a very old miniature dachshund curled up on one corner, a very young miniature dachshund attached to my hip like a pistol, his head under the blanket but his feet sticking out and pointing skyward like the Wicked Witch of the East, and, finally, an asthmatic chihuahua perched on the pillow behind my head, rasping in my ear like a chain smoker asking for a light. 

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Edisto Beach, SC — As if this year weren’t already weird enough, my son is in the bathroom of our rented house shaving for the first time. His mom has been onto him about needing to shave and for reasons known only to a teenage boy — or maybe not even known to him — he has chosen this moment, just after a twilight walk on Steamboat Landing to look for little frogs and then watch dolphins from the pier, for this milestone.

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Before wading into the murk of America’s bizarre tug of war with itself in the year of COVID-19, let’s first stipulate one thing: we’d all love for this to be over. Wearing masks, social distancing, arguing with people on social media over who and what to believe, some of us sweating out every decision on where we can go and who we can see and what we can do and not do any time we venture out of our little quarantine cocoons, others proceeding with their lives as if not one thing has changed. We’re just over it, OK?

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Maybe we should have named our beagle-mix Lazarus, so often did he seemingly come back from the dead over the years. But we named him Walter and we figure he must have turned 18 earlier this year. There have been days when we didn’t think he could get up, days we found him on the porch flat on his belly, his legs splayed in opposite directions like a beginning skier who has fallen and can’t figure out how to get back up. We’d sit with him, give him more Glucosamine, scrub his ears, discuss our options, and hope for the best.

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Though we are as divided as we have ever been as a country, the one thing we seemed to be able to agree on is that recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were heinous, both reminders that the evil of racism still exists in America. We shared this “common ground” for about five minutes before the waves of protests and rioting began, and then the sudden abrupt shift in focus by one group from the murders to the reaction to the murders revealed that we had not, after all, reached some new level of mutual understanding.

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When our son, Jack, joined the high school marching band, he promptly announced his official retirement from baseball, unceremoniously closing the book on a 10-year career — from tee ball to senior league — that included at least a hundred games and untold thousands of practices, including those earliest ones in our back yard, where I taught him, among other things, how to turn his glove to catch the ball and how to shift his weight when swinging the bat.

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Can we all admit that this quarantine is getting a little weirder every week? The rules for what we can and cannot do in order to defeat the coronavirus have become so specific that many of us are staging strange little rebellions at home by completely obliterating the rules that were once so much a part of the fabric of our daily lives that we took them for granted.

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I am thinking of a scene in the movie “Fargo” that captures exactly how I am feeling a couple of weeks into quarantine. The bad guy needs to bury a suitcase full of money somewhere on a long stretch of highway, so he pulls the car over, grabs the suitcase, and walks over to a barbed-wire fence that runs along the road as far as the eye can see.

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If it feels like we’ve seen this all before, it’s because we have. All of a sudden, we are all characters in our very own dystopian movie, with a virus on the loose that has already killed thousands of people around the world and has the potential to kill millions, a feckless President whose utter ineptitude has made a bad situation much worse, and a country that by the beginning of this week was on the verge of complete lockdown.

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It has been over a week since my son had seven boys stay overnight at our house to celebrate his fifteenth birthday party. We are still sorting through the rubble, fishing through layers of debris for whatever valuables may still be buried there: shoes, missing iPhones, family pets, and so forth.

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If I could go back now and talk to my 12-year-old self, I’d tell him a few things. First, most of these grown-ups that you think are awful are, in fact, pretty awful, so try to relax a little. Second, you know those kids in your school that you can’t stand, the really mean ones? It doesn’t turn out so well for most of them. It turns out that karma’s a thing.

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When I came into the bedroom last Sunday afternoon, Tammy had this look on her face.

“What is it?” I said.

“Kobe Bryant’s dead,” she said.

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As a parent, I’ve tried hard to avoid indoctrinating my children with my political leanings, spiritual beliefs, sports fanaticism, or who is better, the Stones or the Beatles. I wanted them to be free thinkers. And yet, I could find no way to avoid indoctrinating them in the gospel according to “The Andy Griffith Show.”

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I’m not that big on New Year’s resolutions, but one thing I do want to do in 2020 is practice greater self-care. For example, I’ve always been a $16 coffee maker kind of guy — which is about the same amount of money that my 18-year-old daughter spends on two trips to Starbuck — but I’ve grown tired of the self-abuse that inevitably follows.

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The hardest thing to get used to is the stillness. The quiet. The absolute absence of any movement at all. Day after day, everything is just as it was the day before.

His old Ford pickup is backed up to the garage, with the headlights pointing straight at our deck like a pair of eyes keeping watch. His late wife’s Subaru — which he could never bring himself to sell after she had a heart attack and passed away on the first day of their tropical vacation 10 years ago — is on the other side, nosed up to the garage door, as if hoping to gain entry. Between them is the golf cart he rode every day down the steep driveway, and then up the road to fetch his mail, with our chihuahua mix keeping pace and barking furiously as he chased along inside our fenced-in yard.

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I didn’t know how much I would miss Shoney’s biscuits and gravy, potato soup, and hot fudge cake until they were torn cruelly away from me a few years ago. Locals will remember the day when that bright, shining “Shoney’s on the hill” — as we came to call it — was sacrificed on the altar of road improvements. Indeed, the road has improved, especially now that people have more or less learned how to use the roundabout in a way that they have not over in Jackson County, where many drivers continue to struggle with the concept of “yield.”

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Lillie is my dad’s big sister. He’s been gone for nineteen years — from a heart attack, in bed, while smoking his last cigarette — but Lillie keeps on going. Today is her 86th birthday, and we are having Thanksgiving a few days early to celebrate both. There will be 52 people there, which would be a decent chunk of Sparta’s population, except that a lot of the family has moved off, most to find work, some to find love, a few to find that great adventure of the unknown.

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Mushrooms. I needed mushrooms, and mushrooms were all I needed. It was my night to cook, and I wanted to make spaghetti because we’ve eaten chicken approximately 11 consecutive nights at my house. We’ve done that because the members of my family have developed “dietary restrictions” over the years to the extent that we are down to approximately three dishes that we can agree on, one of those being chicken prepared about a dozen different ways.

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I’m as nostalgic as the next guy. I mean, I don’t get choked up over the thought of bell bottoms or soap-on-a-rope and I didn’t buy that very special Time Life complete collection of “Hee Haw” episodes (now on DVD! Operators are standing by!), even though that and the Lawrence Welk show formed the soundtrack of my Saturday night “going out on the town” preparations as a teenager. My mother always enjoyed Lawrence Welk. I’m not nostalgic about him myself, you understand.

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I am supposed to be watching a Dodgers game tonight. At this very moment, I should be pushing one of those “mini” grocery carts up and down the aisles of Ingles, stocking up on my usual menu of snacks when the Dodgers make the playoffs: tortilla chips and salsa verde for the first three innings, red seedless grapes for innings four through six, and then the clean-up hitter, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey in the last three innings.

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Before we go any further, let me be clear: I am not the guy you want to put in charge of a surprise birthday party. I’m not organized, and I can’t keep a straight face.

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Every so often, she gets that feeling again. When she does, she scoots a little closer and begins tracing invisible lines on my forearm with her freshly polished nails, fire-engine red. She nuzzles me and sighs, as if being close to me like this is the answer to all of life’s most perplexing questions, as if this closeness is the very emblem of her contentment.

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One of the things I like the most about summertime is when the cherries begin showing up in the grocery stores, gallon-sized plastic bags filled to overflowing with Bing cherries nearly as big around as golf balls. It’s my own private version of the return of the swallows to Capistrano. The return of the cherries to Ingles.

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I can hear her up there in her room moving those enormous, orange storage bins around. They make a scraping noise that nearly drowns out her sing-a-long with the Dixie Chicks. “Wide Open Spaces.” It’s about a girl who’s leaving. Like our girl is.

There are six of those storage bins, each of which she is filling to the brim with clothes, towels, make-up kits, bathroom accessories, school supplies, assorted decorations, prized possessions from her friends, her family, and her childhood. Duckie is in there, a bedtime companion since she was 4 years old. She would clutch Duckie under one arm each night when I came in to sing the bedtime song I wrote for her to chase the demons out of her closet and out of her head.

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My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pattyrae Busic, used to say, “Why, Chris, you’ve got your teeth in your mouth and your mind in Arkansas.”

I didn’t know exactly what that meant then and I still don’t. Where else would my teeth be, and why should I be thinking about Arkansas, a place I’d never been and had no interest in visiting?

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This year, it was the deer and the pelicans. We see deer every summer on Edisto Island, but never as many as this year. We saw them every day. Early in the morning, a mother and two fawns, crowding around the gazebo of the house we rented for the week. Late in the evening, on our bike rides through Wyndham Resort as they strolled the dark, empty roadways and pathways, freezing for a moment as we approached and locking eyes with us to determine whether we constituted a threat or were just part of the evening scenery. Sometimes we stopped, just a few feet away, and everything was just utterly still for a few moments, like being in a painting. I thought of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

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Our people are leaving. Again. We’ve seen this all before. We see it every year around this time. It’s hot outside. The days are longer. Then, one day soon, they start pulling all the suitcases out of the garage. The folding chairs. The huge canopy. The inflatables. Those stupid-ass pool noodles. Bungee cords to tie all this crap on top of the Subaru.

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I think our chihuahua has an eating disorder. He’s a rescue, and since we rescued him, he’s twice the dog he used to be — that is, he is twice his original size, maybe more.

We’re afraid to weigh him. We’re concerned about his self-esteem. We tell him he’s “filling out.” We notice that he hurries by mirrors now, instead of pausing — like he used to — to stare down his reflection, as if to say, “Wow, looking good,” or, on his angrier days, “What are you looking at, butt-licker?”

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 By the time she was 4-years-old, my daughter was better at making friends than I have ever been. When we were at the beach for summer vacation, we wouldn’t even be finished setting up the canopy and arranging the beach chairs and cooler before she was scouring the beach for other families, searching for signs of possible playmates.

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I wish I knew where Mike is. I haven’t seen or heard from him in 10 years at least. I like to think of someone reading this column, connecting some dots, and then sending him a link, or maybe scissoring it out of the paper and mailing it to him. I like to think of him waiting to get his teeth cleaned at the dentist, picking up the paper and reading this column that is for him, because the memories I have of the stories, the essays, the poems, the short stories and the songs he wrote in my classes haunt me sometimes. He shared his stories with me, and the least I can do his share his story with you. Well, at least part of his story. I wish I knew the rest. Or at least I think I do.

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Let’s be honest for a minute. Most of us lie to our friends on a fairly regular basis and are, in turn, lied to by them. Furthermore, that’s the way we want it. It is an unwritten contact that we rely on to keep our friendships burnished to a nice sheen, as well as a way for us to continue to perpetuate certain kinds of delusions that make us feel more comfortable in various areas of our lives.

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We are not a camping family. It’s probably my fault, if there is a need to assign blame. I joined the Boy Scouts when I was a kid mostly because some of my friends did. Also, I liked some of the Patrol names. For example, I was a member of the “Screaming Eagles,” which sounded fierce, intimidating and patriotic, all at the same time. But I hated the uniforms, which seemed goofy and slightly effeminate to me, with the scarves and the khaki shorts and all the bling for the more highly decorated scouts.

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Twenty years ago, a friend and I would get together on the weekends of the major golf tournaments and bet an enormous Japanese take-out meal on whether Tiger Woods would win against the field. He would take Tiger and I would take the field. If you know anything at all about golf, that bet is nearly unimaginable — one golfer against 156 of the best players in the world — but Tiger Woods was so dominant in those days that the odds seemed just about even that he would win any given tournament, especially the big ones like the Masters and the U.S Open. I won a few of those bets, but I also paid for quite a few of those prodigious meals.

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When you’re young and in love, you feel invincible, like nothing can ever possibly contaminate the perfect union you have formed. This is oh so sweet, but you should know that it is unbearably annoying to everyone else. There is something else you should also know.

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When you’ve been sick long enough, your perception of reality begins to change. A couple of days may be no worse than a slightly uncomfortable vacation at home watching the game show channel or reading old magazines or telling people how miserable you are on Facebook. You force fluids, you sleep as much as you can, you get over it. It is sort of like enduring an unpleasant visit from people you don’t much like.

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When Walter comes trundling down the driveway, he always reminds me of what a camera tripod might look like if it had just been granted the wish to walk, but hadn’t exactly learned how yet. He gets along in this sort of halting, stiff-legged gait that looks awkward and uncomfortable, but he is also always wearing that same smile he has been wearing for the 14 years that we’ve had him in the family.

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Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-eight dead. Virginia Tech University, Blacksburg, Virginia. Thirty-three dead. Stoneman Douglass High School, Parkland, Florida. Seventeen dead. Harvest Music Festival, Las Vegas, Nevada. Fifty-nine dead.

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When Tammy and I met almost exactly 15 years ago, there were a few adjustments we had to make, like most couples. She almost fainted when she discovered that there were entire walls in my house covered from floor to ceiling with compact discs and record albums. I could sense that she felt that my décor — “college boy with slightly more disposable income” — left something to be desired.

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His is the face that provoked untold millions of posts on social media, the teenage boy from Kentucky face-to-face with an aging Native American man playing a drum, the two of them surrounded by a group of shouting boys, many of them in those red “Make America Great Again” hats.

We see the boy smiling. Is that a smug smirk, or the smile of a boy who has no idea how to react to what is happening in this moment? What does it “mean,” what does it “say?” The imagery itself is so fraught that it is all but impossible to view the photograph without experiencing waves of emotion, immediate and visceral, but also deeply embedded in a painful and resonant history.

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When I was in my teens, I was so skinny that people winced when they saw me. The local druggist offered to buy me a cheeseburger if I would eat it in front of him. Imagine if God had left the making of humans to a fourth-grade science class supplied with nothing but a box of coat-hangers and a bag of hair. That was me, all sharp angles and a mop of light blonde hair. I looked like a walking geometry problem.

I tried eating more, but no matter how many times I loaded my plate with spaghetti, or mashed potatoes and roast beef, or chicken and dumplings, I just could not “fill out.” I messed around some with weightlifting in physical education class, but I was so weak, I could barely lift the bar by itself, let alone with any plates on it, even the small ones.

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They grow up so fast. Of all the clichés in the parenting handbook, this is the oldest and the truest. Among the things I love most about Christmas is that for a few joyous weeks, the inexorable march of time is held in abeyance by an even greater force: the hope, the peace, and the excitement of Christmas.

Our children are teenagers now, the oldest about to celebrate Christmas with us for the last time before she graduates and starts college in the fall of next year. Next Christmas is likely to feel different, be different, with her home for break. But that is not something we have to deal with today.

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“He (Trump) knows very little about the legislative process, hasn’t learned anything, hasn’t surrounded himself with people that can get it done, hasn’t done all the things you need to do so. It’s mostly his fault that he hasn’t achieved those things. I’m not in charge of Trump.”

— Tucker Carlson, Fox News

“How can you drain the swamp if you keep muddying the waters? Your own words on lots of stuff give me lots of pause. You said Russia didn’t interfere [in the 2016 election] until some Republicans reminded you that they did.”

— Neil Cavuto, Fox News

As the Robert Mueller investigation barrels toward its conclusion and the walls close in on President Donald Trump, his regular splattering of tweets sound more and more like a modern-day version of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” proclamation, but more fanciful and less coherent.

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I’ve set my phone on vibrate so that I can watch the game while enjoying my holiday concoction of Chex Mix and mixed nuts without being disturbed, but when the phone buzzes on the night-table, I pause just a moment, then reach for it. I have developed an instinct for bad news, and it is best to hear bad news right away. I learned that watching The Godfather when I was in my teens.

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Perhaps you have noticed how popular the “what about” argument has become these days? You know it works: you make a claim. I can’t really debate it, so I change the subject and pretend that whatever I say is a reasonable argument, even though it has nothing to do with the point you are making.

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When our daughter told us a little over four years ago that she was interested in trying out for the color guard for the Tuscola High School marching band, I thought it had to be part of some elaborate prank. She had never been much of a “joiner,” and had never expressed even a whiff of interest in extracurricular activities in elementary or middle school.

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My wife and I do not play chess. A few years ago at a company Christmas party, we were participants in a game of Dirty Santa and came away with a chess set featuring oversized chess pieces that glowed in the dark. I had originally opened a gift I actually wanted — a big coffee mug with a nice bag of gourmet whole bean coffee — but some guy in a hideous Christmas sweater swiped it from me because he drew a better number and preferred my coffee bonanza to the chess set that he opened.

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I did not go to college with Brett Kavanaugh, but I went to college at about the same time he did, and the portrait that has emerged of him over the past couple of weeks is one that I remember pretty clearly. There were plenty of beer-loving, weightlifting, cocky, entitled, belligerent frat boys on lots of college campuses in the early 1980s. 

You would find them preening at the local bars, singing too loudly, invading others’ space, splashing beer on people, daring anyone to complain about it. My friends and I, most of whom were also beer-loving and some of whom could be pretty obnoxious themselves if under the influence of 10 or 12 glasses of Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull, we really, really, REALLY hated those guys. You see, these guys were already all of those things before consuming their first beer. They just used beer like kerosene to inflame these qualities. 

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